Originally printed in Issue 3 of
March 28, 1966
There has been a great increase recently in the number of popular artists whose songs are influenced by or taken from American folk music—both traditional and modern. The paranoiac need of modern man for a label for anything that comes near him resulted, in this case, in the term “folk-rock” to signify pop music with strong folk influences. Originally “folk-rock” meant pop music that used actual folk material; later, anything folk-influenced that retained a heavy beat, and still later, anything having anything to do with folk that happened to sell in the pop market.
The term “folk-rock” is a silly one, and has grown sillier over the months. It would be just another in an endless parade of silly terms, however, were it not that the press and the music trade have, because of the word “folk-rock,” chosen to believe that folk mixed with rock ’n’ roll is the big new trend. There are a lot of “Folk-rock is a way of life” articles appearing hither and yon, signed by the same old bunch of interpreters who really believe that if you speak the language of the teenager you understand him. The mass media are currently explaining to the mass audience how Bob Dylan, the new pied piper, with his electric flute, is leading the youth of America out of the coffeehouses and into the echo chambers of plugged-in music. Hogwash!
In point of fact, nobody is leading anyone, the overall nature of the pop music field has not changed too significantly, folk influences have always been significant, and “folk-rock” is nothing but an undefined term carelessly applied to a certain ancient style of rock ‘n’ roll which happens to be getting better, and thus more popular, at the moment.
The difference between pop music (rock ’n’ roll if you will) and folk music, if there is a difference, it is that folk music is what the folk feel like writing at a given time, and pop music is what the folk (in general) feel like listening to. If they happen to overlap a little, and “Sounds of Silence” sells a million records and “Turn, Turn, Turn” 800,000, be happy that the free hand and the free ear have agreed for once. But don’t try to say that the one is absorbing the other. If tomorrow the nonprofessionals of the nation feel like singing about surfboards, while Tin Pan Alley works overtime feeding a national taste for songs of the open road, the former will still be creating folk music, the latter pop music. And if the two should influence each other, rejoice at the occasion. But don’t speak of folk and rock as though folk were something filed in the Library of Congress of sleeping in Bob Dylan’s breast, and rock a beast that cannot borrow from something without devouring it. Folk is folk and rock is rock, and if the twain should meet, and exchange note, fine. But that’s no reason to try to unite them forever, folk-rock, a marriage of brothers. “Folk-rock” is a deception, and the sooner the American press defines its terms and realizes it has deceived itself, the better.
Watch: Bob Dylan clip “Don’t Look Back” [at youtube.com]